February 18, 2007

Targeting Helicopters in Iraq

In the last four weeks, as many as seven American helicopters have been shot down. It appears that these shoot downs have been caused by coordinated automatic weapons fire - ambushes along known flight routes. Although the insurgents have shoulder-fired surface to air missiles like the SA-7, SA-14 and even the more advanced SA-16, the main threat to U.S. military helicopters is the machine gun. The infrared jammers on American helicopters have proven to be effective against the missile threat.

It is important to put these losses into perspective. Helicopter losses, despite this recent spate, have declined every year since 2003, even though they are spending more time in the air. It remains the safest means of travel from place to place.

So what is going on?

There is a concerted effort on the part of the insurgents, specifically Al-Qa’idah in Iraq, to down American aircraft. Although attacks on the ground are easier and more deadly, downing helicopters has a psychological impact. Think about the mental image generated by the words “Blackhawk down.” Insurgent videos of helicopters going down, the scenes of burning wreckage and the abuse of remains have that same impact.

There is an even older historical reference for this effort against helicopters, one that Al-Qa’idah knows well. In Afghanistan, it was the introduction of the American Stinger shoulder-fired antiaircraft missile that forced Soviet helicopters – particularly the feared Mi-24 Hind gunship – from the skies, making the battle on the ground much more difficult for Soviet troops.

During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the United States provided the Stinger to the Afghan mujahidin, not to Usamah Bin Ladin’s fledgling Al-Qa’idah organization. However, it was inevitable that they would get their hands on the Stingers – all support was routed through the Pakistani intelligence service, and Pakistan supported both the Afghan as well as the Arab fighters.

The effect of neutralizing Soviet army aviation is largely credited for ending the Soviet occupation of that country. It was a lesson learned for Al-Qa’idah – they are attempting to apply it in Iraq.